SELHURST PARK, LONDON—Liverpool suffered a 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday, succumbing to a fourth straight defeat in all competitions despite taking a very early lead in the game.
It leaves manager Brendan Rodgers at his lowest ebb since taking charge of the Reds and a far cry from the all-out-attack, free-flowing side which wowed the top flight as they finished second last season—but possible redemption is just around the corner in the shape of the UEFA Champions League.
The Reds play Ludogorets on Wednesday night in a must-win game, but if the English side are to take victory there are several key issues that the manager must take care of before kick-off.
Team Shape after Losing Possession
It was somewhere between excruciating and embarrassing to watch the frequency with which Crystal Palace, a side lurking outside the relegation zone with four defeats in five, sliced open Liverpool’s midfield and defensive lines on the counter-attack.
Brendan Rodgers spoke after the game about Palace’s methods:
“They had a simple game plan, to concede lots of possession and strike on the counter-attack.”
Right, but despite it being so simple, the Reds were undone by it time after time. For all the away team’s possession, they rarely looked like scoring in the second half. Palace, by contrast, looked capable of getting a clean shot away almost every time they attacked.
The problem was Liverpool’s lack of shape after losing possession; numbers in midfield were depleted, Steven Gerrard couldn’t get close to those centrally and Palace’s wingers broke behind Liverpool’s high full-backs with regularity.
The lack of pressing from Liverpool has been spoken about often enough, but if the team isn’t going all-out to win back the ball after losing it, the absolute minimum they must ensure is that the players, particularly in midfield, get back into shape to prevent opponents simply gliding their way toward Simon Mignolet‘s penalty box. Too many clear chances are being given up right now.
If the Reds can’t fashion as many scoring opportunities of their own at the moment, the minimum expectation must be to defend far, far better as a unit. That starts the moment possession is lost, by getting back into position, into shape.
Numbers into the Box
Rickie Lambert‘s long wait for a Liverpool goal ended after just two minutes at Crystal Palace, but beyond a few fleeting moments here and there throughout the next 88, the Reds never really looked like scoring.
The team switched back to a diamond midfield to give Lambert a partner in attack, but Raheem Sterling never made a run beyond the defence to entice a pass from midfield, and the central players certainly never got beyond the forwards to make up additional numbers in attack.
It says a lot that the team’s best chance of the game fell to right-back Javi Manquillo, who skewed a shot toward the corner flag and out for a throw-in.
There simply must be more bravery from Liverpool’s midfielders against Ludogorets.
Not just because the performance against Palace wasn’t good enough, but for a more fundamental reason: only a win is good enough this time. Draw, or lose, and Liverpool are out of the Champions League. Unless they get another fortuitous early goal or a set piece pays off, players must be brave enough to get from the second line of attack into the box.
Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Philippe Coutinho: whoever gets the nod, these players could prove crucial in this fixture.
Then, if the Reds do take the lead, the next piece of the puzzle becomes all-important this time.
This final point has to be aimed at both players and manager.
Firstly, those on the pitch must be able to read the game better, to understand how opponents will react to certain situations and, critically, be alive and alert to react to those. It’s not just about following tactical orders or performing a single job; a defender must be able to communicate to a midfielder about someone making a run behind them. A striker must make a run off the ball to give a wide attacker the chance to provide service.
It’s a team game, full of unpredictabilities, but the team has been together long enough now to try and iron out some of those moments of panic rather than, as Rodgers put it, “lack togetherness.”
Rodgers’ own substitutions have long been a talking point amongst supporters, but the weekend decisions to take off Adam Lallana and Joe Allen—the latter being the Reds’ best performer, by some distance—merited only further questioning. The biggest of those being why serial underperformers, including Gerrard alongside Allen in midfield, were left on the pitch.
Rodgers has to use his squad better. That starts with leaving out players who are desperately lacking in form.
Per Ben Smith of BBC Sport, he doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy with regards to his job, but failure to win in the Champions League on Wednesday means Liverpool are out.
Lots of questions re Brendan Rodgers’ future. I am told it is not even a talking point for #LFC owners. He is their man. Full stop.
— Ben Smith (@BenSmithBBC) November 24, 2014
If that happens, and even before the final match in the group, his position will become a lot more fragile very quickly, at least in the eyes of supporters. Rodgers has built his reputation on being able to get the best out of the players at his disposal and, of course, on fluid, offensive football.
Liverpool need both, very quickly. But before any kind of return to the easy-on-the-eyes football of last season, they simply need three points in the Champions League, however the boss manages it.